Active Listening. A fundamental building block of healthy parent-child relations.

As I prepared breakfast for my children, my three year old dropped a doozie, “Mummy, I want Daddy to live somewhere else.” Out of the corner of my eye I could see Daddy just about to come into the kitchen. She repeated the statement. Daddy heard. I signaled him to stay quiet and out of sight and let her speak. “Oh?” I prompted.

“Daddy needs to live in another house.” she continued. Trying to hide my concern and surprise, I trotted out my most basic parenting and counselling skill, active listening. “You’ve been thinking about where Daddy could live.” I reflected. She nodded. “I just want to live with you and the chickens Mummy”. (“The chickens” are our infant twins.) By now my mind was wildly searching for explanations for this apparent rejection of her loving, attentive and very hands-on father. Daddy was still behind her out of sight, his face a study in hurt and bewilderment.

“Just you, me and the babies, hey?” I disciplined myself to continue and forced myself not to jump in to analyze, lecture, reassure or in some other way block the flow of her communication. “Yes Mummy. That’s how it is every day.” (Huh? I just wasn’t following.) I picked her up for a cuddle, made some gentle eye contact and encouraged her to tell me more. What started this? I privately wondered. Is it because she sees so much divorce around her? Her best friend at kinder speaks about her daddy living at her grandfather’s house; her cousin’s father is about to remarry; her other cousin’s father lives overseas. Worry crept in. I tried so hard to shelter her, to ensure that she felt complete and utter security in her family unit. I could see my husband’s thoughts were travelling the same path as mine.

I soldiered on in my active listening mode. “Every day it’s just you, me and the babies.” Tears welled in my daughter’s eyes. ‘”Mummy, I miss Daddy so much when he is at work! I don’t want him to go to work. I want him to stay home with us!” I finally understood my child. She was trying to deal with the difficult daily separation from her father by taking control of it altogether. If she was going to have to face this leave-taking every day, she would just get it over and done with for good. Children often attempt to achieve mastery over an externally imposed challenge by taking charge of it themselves, owning it. As a psychologist I could reflect on this with the benefit of training and hindsight. But in that moment no expertise was needed; just a commitment to accepting all that my daughter said and staying with her as she muddled through her thoughts and feelings. Daddy wiped his eyes. A wide smile chased away his furrowed brow. He resolved to phone her every morning when he arrived at work. And so he has done, and they chat happily about the myriad things that have happened since he walked out the door half an hour ago.

1. Describe the skill of active listening in your own words.
2. Identify roadblocks to communication that parents use.
3. List some possible well-intended reasons to use these roadblocks.
4. What can actually happen when we use the roadblocks?
5. Choose a couple of points in the above scenario in which to insert roadblocks and follow where the conversation might have gone had they been used instead of active listening.
6. Sum up the child’s dilemma in one sentence. That is, what she would have said at the outset had she the words and insight.

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